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Opinion: Quality, Quantity & Quandaries

Peter Cairns

“What’s your favourite image?” I don’t know about you, but this is a question I’m often asked. My response changes almost every time the question is posed, but I probably lean towards those images I’ve recently taken, those that are ‘fresh’. 

It’s inevitable that when we photographers acquire new images, especially from a place or of a species that we’ve never before photographed, there is an emotional attachment to those images: we can still sense being there; we can re-live the moment through the image. Moreover, if the image was hard won, perhaps through hours of waiting or days of travelling or even thousands of pounds of expenditure, we are easily tricked into imagining those images are at least appealing, if not ground-breaking. The trouble is of course, that our audience is dispassionate, cynical even. For them, the image is what it is, irrespective of the back-story.

There’s a bit of the trophy hunter in all nature photographers and there’s nothing better than showing off a newly acquired, brand new shiny trophy. But in an age of excruciating competition I’ve noticed a trend of late, a trend that I’m part of, but one that does nothing to relieve the ubiquity of wildlife and landscape imagery. Social media in all its myriad platforms allows us to shout from the rooftops about our new trophies. But are our trophies really as impressive as we like to imagine? Are we mistaking image freshness for image quality? And are we falling into an even more self-destructive trap – that of bludgeoning our audience with quantity rather than quality? I think so, and it’s becoming ever more difficult to ‘surprise’ the viewer. Without the potential to do that, the very recognition that we crave, is diminished.

Peter Cairns Red Squirrel
This is a very old image now taken in conditions that rarely repeat. I’ve tried to improve upon it but despite many attempts, it remains my favourite of its kind to date.

To avoid confusing freshness with fodder, I’ve had a long overdue rethink of late. My ‘new’ approach is to take the image and wait 6 months before processing it, longer if possible. Without the immediacy of the experience screaming in my head, I’m able to judge my images objectively. Already, far fewer are getting past the editing knife and fewer still find their way onto Facebook (ok, I’m still working on that). 

Sharper editing establishes a more trustworthy barometer to ensure only those images of enduring quality end up in our library, but the more insidious threat of homogeneity needs fresh thinking. If we’re to stretch ourselves as well as our audience, our images have to do one of two things, preferably both. They have to be original; they have to reveal something new and, they should elicit an emotional response, individually or by contributing to a wider story that does so.

It’s hard to detach ourselves from our own images and to sometimes admit that they don’t quite cut it. In the aftermath of an adrenaline-fuelled shoot, a strong bond is formed between photographer and photograph. In the long run however, we need to be hard on ourselves and accept that quality really is preferable to quantity. Maintain the emotional bond with your subject of course, but cast it aside when it comes to image evaluation. 

What’s my favourite image? Ask me again in 6 months.

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Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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